“The tea party has prided itself on its decentralization, on its grass-roots nature, on sort of being a ground spring of popular discontent. And the Tea Party Express, in contrast, is a very professionalized, organized group that is populated by a lot of experienced political operatives,” said David Levinthal, editor of OpenSecrets.org, a project of the Center for Responsive Politics.
Rival group Tea Party Patriots has also spent significant sums on paying individuals, according to financial data obtained by Roll Call. Half of the group’s spending in its first year of operation went to compensation and travel, with nearly $150,000, or 22 percent, paid out to consultants and staff.
The group has since received a $1 million contribution from an undisclosed donor and expanded its staff to eight full-time employees and two part-time assistants.
The leaders contend that grass-roots organizing, particularly in a movement that is spread across the country, requires high amounts of labor and travel. But several tea partyers have raised questions about whether the money raised could be better spent.
Rob Gaudet, a former Tea Party Patriots employee who is embroiled in a lawsuit with the group over compensation, said he worked for free for months while others were getting paid.
The group’s tax forms show he received $23,500 in the group’s first year of operations to provide technological support. Gaudet said his actual contribution amounted to much more.
“We spent money that we did not need to spend. There was no effort to temper what we spent money on with the recognition that this was donated money,” he said. “This is about building something that supports the leaders. ... There are other motives going on besides doing good for the country.”
Martin denied the charge, saying Tea Party Patriots members supported the hiring of paid staff as a way to sustain the movement. She said a board of directors approves and reviews salaries.
“We always say that contributions sustain the organization and go to the salaries of the core people and the equipment and the travel,” she said. “We need people who we can hold accountable and review their work. It’s hard to do that with just volunteers.”
Kremer cited similar reasons for drawing a salary from the Tea Party Express, and she pointed out that many nonprofit leaders make more than she does.
“I would love to be able to do it on a volunteer basis, but at the same time, you have to put food on the table,” she said, adding, “There have been periods of time that I have not taken any pay. If Tea Party Express were to say right now that we can no longer afford to pay you, I would keep on doing what I’m doing because I believe in the cause.”
David Meyer, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies grass-roots movements, said the tea party faces a “common dilemma” for activists.
“In order for a grass-roots movement to continue, you need paid staff in it — somebody who gets up in the morning and doesn’t have to think about anything else than how well the tea party is going,” he said.